On this date in 1816, poachers John Penny and John Allen hanged for the murder of a gameskeeper.
This wasn’t about preserving endangered elephants from the depredations of the ivory trade, but the centuries-long rural skirmish between classes over land use and property control.
The recipe to make a poacher [said an English Peer in 1825] will be found to contain a very few and simple ingredients which may be met with in every game county in England. Search out (and you need not go far) a poor man with a large family, or a poor man single man, having his natural sense of right and wrong … give him little more than a natural disinclination to go to work, let him exist in the midst of lands where the game is preserved, keep him cool in the winter, by allowing him insufficient wages to purchase fuel; let him feel hungry upon the small pittance of parish relief; and if he be not a poacher it will only be by the blessing of God.
It was the legacy of enclosure, the breaking-up of common lands and the abolition of longstanding privileges that underpinned (among other things) the traditions of English game-hunting and the livelihoods of commoners who depended upon it.
And not only a metaphorical war.
Pew pew pew.
The wholesale seizure of lands, wealth, and social rights had perforce to be upheld by violence. Here in Gloucestershire’s Vale of Berkeley, the principal landowner was one William FitzHardinge Berkeley, tetchy bastard son of an illustrious army officer who inherited the wealth of his family and the chip on his shoulder about not being admitted to the peerage due to his out-of-wedlock birth.
Landowners at this time had no compunctions about setting lethal traps to keep out those they legally defined as trespassers. Late in 1815, a poacher named Thomas Till had actually been killed by a tripwire-activated spring gun, to the outrage of his compatriots.
John Allen, charismatic local farmer and a poacher himself, had some score-settling on his mind one moonlit night in January when he rounded up 15 other poachers, swore them all to silence, and went out armed and looking for trouble.
They found it in a band of Berkeley’s gamekeepers, who confronted the poachers. Shooting broke out; one of the gamekeepers was killed and a few others wounded.
“Eleven young men, nine of whom were farmers’ sons and respectably connected,” in the characterization of the Gloucester Journal, were convicted of murder by a jury weeping as it delivered the verdict. For the real facts on the ground, this criminal justice framework made for a cruel fit, especially since the highhanded lord seems to have engineered the dangerous encounter to begin with. Dr. Edward Jenner, famous pioneer of immunology, was also a Gloucestershire magistrate involved in this case; he, too, had misgivings.
All but the ringleader Allen and John Penny, apparent author of the fatal shot, received the clemency of convict transportation to Van Dieman’s Land, Australia — although a couple got away outright and never stood trial and one of those arrested turned state’s evidence in exchange for a full pardon.